Saturday, May 8, 2010
The Ghosts of Gandamak
THE name Gandamak means little in the West today. Yet this small Afghan village was once famous for the catastrophe that took place there during the First Anglo-Afghan War in January 1842, arguably the greatest humiliation ever suffered by a Western army in the East.
The course of that distant Victorian war followed a trajectory that is beginning to seem distinctly familiar. In 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan on the basis of dubious intelligence about a nonexistent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul, the Afghan capital, was manipulated by a group of ambitious hawks to create a scare about a phantom Russian invasion, thus bringing about an unnecessary, expensive and wholly avoidable conflict.
Initially, the British conquest proved remarkably easy and bloodless; Kabul was captured within a few months and a pliable monarch, Shah Shuja, placed on the throne. Then an insurgency began which unraveled that first heady success, first among the Pashtuns of Kandahar and Helmand, then slowly moving northward until it reached the capital.
What happened next is a warning of how bad things could yet become: a full-scale rebellion against the British broke out in Kabul, and the two most senior British envoys were murdered, making the British occupation impossible to sustain. On the disastrous retreat that followed, as many as 18,000 East India Company troops and maybe half again as many Indian camp followers (estimates vary), were slaughtered by Afghan marksmen waiting in ambush amid the snow drifts and high passes, shot down as they trudged through the icy depths of the Afghan winter.
The last 50 or so survivors made their final stand at Gandamak. As late as the 1970s, fragments of Victorian weaponry could be found lying in the screes above the village; even today, the hill is covered with bleached British bones. Only one man, Thomas Souter, lived to tell the tale. It is a measure of the increasingly pertinent parallels between the events of 1842 and today’s that one of the main NATO bases in Afghanistan is named Camp Souter.
For the Victorian British, Gandamak became a symbol of the country’s greatest ever imperial defeat, as well as a symbol of gallantry: William Barnes Wollen’s celebrated painting of the Last Stand of the 44th Foot — a group of ragged but determined British soldiers standing in a circle behind their bayonets as the Pashtun tribesmen close in — was one of the era’s most famous images.
For the Afghans themselves, Gandamak became a symbol of freedom, and their determination to refuse to be controlled by any foreign power. It is again no accident that the diplomatic quarter of Kabul is named after the Afghan resistance leader who oversaw the British defeat at Gandamak, Wazir Akbar Khan.
A week or so ago, while doing research for a book on the disaster of 1842, I only narrowly avoided the fate of my Victorian compatriots.
Gandamak backs onto the mountain range that leads to Tora Bora and the Pakistan border, an area that has always been a Taliban center. I was trying to follow the route of the British retreat, but had been advised not to attempt to visit the Gandamak area without local protection. So I set off in the company of a local tribal leader who is also a sports minister in the Karzai government, Anwar Khan Jigdalek. A mountain of a man, Anwar Khan is a former wrestling champion who made his name as the mujaheddin commander against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
We left Kabul — past the blast walls of the NATO barracks that were built on the very site of the British cantonment of 170 years ago — and headed into the line of bleak mountain passes that link Kabul with the Khyber Pass. At Sarobi we left the main road, and moved into Taliban territory; five trucks full of Anwar Khan’s old mujaheddin comrades, all brandishing rocket-propelled grenades, appeared to escort us.
At Jigdalek, on the 12th of January, 1842, 200 frostbitten British soldiers found themselves surrounded by several thousand Pashtun tribesmen. The two highest-ranking British soldiers were taken hostage. It was 50 of those infantrymen who later managed to break out under cover of darkness to make the final passage to Gandamak. Our own welcome to the village was, thankfully, somewhat warmer.
By William Dalrymple, illustration by Sam Weber